By Stephen Rose
Gram Parsons was a country-rock pioneer who single-handedly brought country music back into the mainstream in the face of the psychedelic excesses of the late 60’s. Before dying of a tragic drug overdose in 1973, his “Cosmic American Music” paved the way for the vanguard of country-rock, alt-country, and roots-rock bands that exploded onto the music scene in the early 70’s and which continue to evolve and attract new audiences today.
By merging the twang of post-war honky tonk with the hippie culture of late-‘60s ballroom rock, Gram Parsons removed the stigma of pure country music being strictly limited to the providence of Nashville elitists, and made young people and fellow musicians alike believe that country could be cool.
During his brief time as a member of The Byrds he steered them to the forefront of the nascent country-rock movement with the release of their landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. He hung out with the Rolling Stones, influencing several of their country-flavored compositions including “Wild Horses,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Country Honk,” “Dead Flowers,” and “Loving Cup.” After leaving The Byrds, Parsons and fellow-Byrd Chris Hillman founded The Flying Burrito Brothers and released two seminal country-rock albums including the classic The Gilded Palace of Sin. As a final contribution he mentored Emmylou Harris and introduced her talents to the masses as a member of his Fallen Angels band.
Gram Parsons was born in 1946 in Winter Haven, Florida, to a family who made their fortune in the Florida citrus industry. He spent his early years growing up in Waycross, Georgia, and decided to become a musician after attending an Elvis Presley concert. In 1956, he formed a rock & roll band called The Pacers, who played mostly Buddy Holley covers. In 1958, he formed a folk group called The Legends, which included Jim Stafford, and Kent Lavoie (who would later gain fame as Lobo).
Tragedy struck during the Christmas holiday in 1959 when his father Cecil “Coon Dog” Connors – a decorated World War II flying ace – committed suicide. His family moved back to Winter Haven, and a year later Gram’s mother married Robert Parsons, prompting Gram to have his name legally changed to Gram Parsons. [Robert Parsons owned a club in Winter Haven where Gram’s band, The Legends, headlined.]
In 1963, Gram Parsons joined a group called The Shilos who performed throughout Florida and cut several demos. Heavily influenced by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen, the band made several forays into New York City’s Greenwich Village, including appearances at The Bitter End.
In 1965, tragedy struck a second time when on the day of his high school graduation, Gram’s mother Avis died in the hospital from cirrhosis, the result of sever alcoholism.
After graduating high school, Parsons briefly attended Harvard University, and became close friends with his freshman advisor, Reverend James (“Jet”) Ellison Thomas. It was there that he met John Nuese, a guitarist in a local band called The Trolls, who turned him on to the “Bakersfield Sound” of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
Parsons dropped out of Harvard after one semester, then in 1966 he and Nuese moved to New York City where they formed The International Submarine Band with bassist Ian Dunlop, and drummer Mickey Gauvin. While in New York they recorded two singles for Columbia Records which failed to chart.
In 1967, the band relocated to Los Angeles and signed a contract with Lee Hazelwood’s LHI label. In early 1968, they released their first album “Safe at Home,” featuring John Nuese on guitar, Chris Etheridge on bass and Jon Corneal on drums. It contained one of Parson’s best-known songs, “Luxury Liner,” and an early version of “Do You Know How It Feels.” However, the record’s release was delayed several months, by which time the group disbanded.
[Lee Hazelwood became well known in the 60’s for his work with Nancy Sinatra, including writing and producing her hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” He also performed several duets with her including “Summer Wine,” “Jackson,” and “Some Velvet Morning.”]
Later that year Parsons was offered an audition with The Byrds by bassist Chris Hillman, who had met him the previous year. Parsons joined the group in the spring of 1968 and persuaded the band to record their next album in Nashville, resulting in the country-rock classic “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Chris Hillman recalls, “We were hiring a keyboard player, but we got George Jones in a rhinestone suit.”
Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally conceived by band leader Roger McGuinn as a sprawling, double album history of American popular music. However, McGuinn’s original album concept was jettisoned in favor of a fully fledged country project, which included the Parsons’ compositions “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now.” Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman co-wrote “I Am A Pilgrim.” Other songs were covers written by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and The Louvin Brothers. The album featured Nashville session players including Lloyd Green on pedal steel, and future Byrd Clarence White on guitar.
Before leaving Nashville, The Byrds performed a two-song set at the Grand Ole Opry. They played Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” and Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.” The criticism they received from the Nashville community, and DJ Ralph Emery in particular, was fierce. In response, Parsons and McGuinn co-wrote the song “Drug Store Truck Driving Man.”
While working with The Byrds, Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. Consequently, Lee Hazlewood contested Parsons’ appearance on the album and threatened legal action. As a result, McGuinn ended up replacing three of Parsons’ lead vocals with his own singing on the finished album, a move that still rankled Parsons as late as 1973, when he told Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe in an interview that McGuinn “erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up.” The album featured Parsons as lead vocalist on two songs “You’re Still on My Mind” and “Hickory Wind”.
Album producer Gary Usher would later put a different slant on the events surrounding the removal of Parsons’ vocals by telling his biographer Stephen J. McParland that the alterations to the album arose out of creative concerns, not legal ones; Usher and the band were both worried that Parsons’ contributions were dominating the record and so, his vocals were excised in an attempt to increase McGuinn and Hillman’s presence on the album.
[In 2003, the expanded Columbia Legacy Edition of Sweetheart of the Rodeo included Parsons’ original vocals for “The Christian Life,” “Life In Prison,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” and “One Hundred Years From Now.”]
Upon its release in August 1968, Sweetheart of the Rodeo officially launched the country-rock movement. Two of Parsons’ songs from the album, “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now,” remain classics of the genre.
[Other notable country-rock albums released during this period include The Band’s ‘Music From The Big Pink’ (July 1968); Gene Clark’s ‘The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark’ (October 1968); The Beau Brummels ‘Bradley’s Barn’ (October 1968); The Dillards’ ‘Wheatstraw Suite’ (1968); Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Hand Sown…Home Grown’ (March 1969); Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ (April 1969); and Poco’s ‘Pickin’ Up The Pieces (May 1969).]
Although Parsons was an equal contributor to The Byrds, he was not regarded as a full member by Columbia Records. He was hired as a sideman and received a salary from Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. In later years, this led Hillman to state “Gram was hired. He was not a member of The Byrds, ever — he was on salary. That was the only way we could get him to turn up.”
While The Byrds were touring in England in the summer of 1968, Parsons became acquainted with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. He had accompanied the two on an outing to Stonehenge (along with McGuinn and Hillman) in the English county of Wiltshire, where Richards had a house near the ancient site.
As The Byrds were preparing to depart England and embark on a South African tour, Parsons left the group, citing an opposition to that country’s apartheid policies. He stayed behind in England and developed a close friendship with Keith Richards over the next few years. According to Stones’ confidant and close friend of Parsons, Phil Kaufman, the two would sit around for hours, playing obscure country records and trading off on various songs with their guitars.
In late 1968, Gram Parsons returned to California and reunited with Chris Hillman to form The Flying Burrito Brothers. They shared a bachelor pad (dubbed Burrito Manor) in the San Fernando Valley, where they composed classics such as “Christine’s Tune,” “Sin City,” and “Hot Burrito #2.” Parsons had already started working on new material with bassist Chris Ethridge (from The International Submarine Band). They rounded out the group with Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel, and used session drummers for their first recordings (later Michael Clarke of The Byrds was added on drums). Gram outfitted the band in iconic “Nudie” suits emblazoned with custom hippie accoutrements. He described their music as “a Southern soul group playing country and gospel-oriented music with a steel guitar.”
In 1969, The Flying Burrito Brothers released their first album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” a modernized version of the Bakersfield Sound made popular by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Along with Parsons-Hillman originals such as “Christine’s Tune,” “Sin City,” “My Uncle,” “Wheels,” “Juanita,” “Hot Burrito #1” (co-written with Chris Etheridge), “Hot Burrito #2,” and “Hippie Boy,” were versions of soul classics “The Dark End of the Street,” and “Do Right Woman” (the latter featuring David Crosby on high harmony). [The gospel soul influence on this album likely comes from Parson’s frequent jamming with Delaney and Bonnie, and Keith Richards.]
Though not a commercial success, Gilded was measured by rock critic Robert Christgau as “an ominous, obsessive, tongue-in-cheek country-rock synthesis, absorbing rural and urban, traditional and contemporary, at point of impact.”
Although the album only sold a few thousand copies, the group gathered a dedicated cult following that was mainly composed of fellow musicians, including the Rolling Stones. By this time, Parsons had begun hanging around the Rolling Stones frequently, becoming close friends with Keith Richards. Parsons had experimented with drugs and alcohol before he met Richards, but in 1969 he dove deep into substance abuse, which he supported with his sizable trust fund. [Parson’s trust fund allowed him the luxury to pursue his country muse without the financial constraints and obligations that compell most working musicians to perform more commercially viable styles of music.]
Embarking on a cross-country tour via train, Parsons was frequently indulging in massive quantities of LSD and cocaine, so his performances were erratic at best, while much of the band’s repertoire consisted of vintage honky tonk and soul standards, but few originals.
After returning to Los Angeles, the group recorded “The Train Song”, written during an infrequent songwriting session on the train. Although the Burritos requested that the remnants of their publicity budget be diverted to promotion of the single, it also flopped. Chris Ethridge departed shortly thereafter – discouraged by poor attendance at their shows – and was replaced by lead guitarist Bernie Leadon (soon to be a founding member of The Eagles), at which point Hillman reverted back to bass.
By this time, Parsons’ use of drugs had increased to the extent that new songs were rare and much of his time was diverted to partying with the Stones – who briefly relocated to America in the summer of 1969 to finish their forthcoming Let It Bleed album and prepare for an autumn cross-country tour. [The singer’s dedication to the Rolling Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as the opening act of the infamous Altamont Music Festival in December 1969.]
In April 1970, The Flying Burrito Brothers released their second album, entitled Burrito Deluxe. Most of the material was hastily written in the studio by Leadon, Hillman, and Parsons, with two Gilded Palace of Sin outtakes thrown into the mix.
The album is considered less inspired than its predecessor. But subject to taste, neither album really has a weak track. Parsons-Hillman originals include the opener “Lazy Days,” “High Fashion Queen,” “Man in the Fog,” “Cody Cody,” and “Down in the Churchyard. Bernie Leadon co-wrote “Older Guys,” and contributed the original “God’s Own Singer.” The album is notable for its take on Jagger and Richards’ “Wild Horses”—the first recording released of this famous song. [Parsons was inspired to cover the song after hearing an advance tape of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album sent to Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Jagger consented to the cover version, so long as the Flying Burrito Brothers did not issue it as a single.]
Burrito Deluxe, like its predecessor, underperformed commercially. Later in 1970, Parsons had a motorcycle accident, and disenchanted with the band, he left the Burritos in mutual agreement with Chris Hillman. [Hillman recorded two more LPs with the Burritos before departing in 1972 to join Stephen Stills in Manassas.]
By the end of 1970, Gram Parsons signed with A&M Records and recorded a handful of songs with producer Terry Melcher but cancelled his intended solo debut in early 1971. He moved to Europe with model and aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell, and hung out with The Rolling Stones – living with Keith Richards at Villa Nellcote in France during the sessions for Exile on Main Street. [Richards concedes that it is very likely Parsons is among the chorus of singers on “Sweet Virginia.”]
Later in 1971, Gram Parsons married girlfriend Gretchen Burrell at his stepfather’s New Orleans estate in a ceremony performed by his Harvard advisor Jet Thomas. They went to Disneyland for their honeymoon, then traveled Europe and visited old friends including bassist Ric Grech (Family, Blind Faith, Traffic) who helped Parsons kick his heroin habit.
Parsons returned to the United States for a one-off concert with the Burritos, then on Chris Hillman’s recommendation attended an Emmylou Harris show at a small club inWashington, D.C. Parsons and Harris became friends, and in the summer of 1972 he asked her out to California to do harmonies on his first solo album. Also recruited for the album were Ric Grech on bass, and three members of Elvis Presleys band: guitarist James Burton (well known in the late ’50s as a member of Ricky Nelson’s band), Glen D Hardin and Ronnie Tutt. Barry Tashian (Barry and the Remains) joined Emmylou Harris on vocals. Parsons asked Merle Haggard to produce the album, but Haggard turned the offer down. Instead, Parsons and Ric Grech co-produced the album, with assistance in the studio from Hugh Davis, Merle Haggard’s engineer. [Burton, Hardin and Tashian would each go on to become members of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band.]
The resulting album, G.P., released in January 1973 on Reprise Records, was primarily comprised of Parsons’ originals such as “Still Feeling Blue,” “She” (co-written with Chris Etheridge), “The New Soft Shoe,” “How Much I Lied,” and “Big Mouth Blues.” Ric Grech contributed “Kiss the Children.” The album also contained covers of Joyce Allsup’s “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning,” Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore,” and a song by The J. Geils Band, “Cry One More Time.” The album masterfully achieved Parson’s vision of making pure country music accessible for the masses. However, despite receiving enthusiastic reviews it failed to chart.
After G.P.’s release, Gram Parsons and his band, The Fallen Angels, hit the road to promote the album. Replacing James Burton on the tour was Colorado-based guitarist Jock Bartley (soon to gain fame with Firefall). Managing the tour was Phil Kaufman, who had met Parsons while working for the Rolling Stones in 1968. [Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt sat in with the group for a televised performance at Liberty Hall in Houston.]
After the tour was completed, Gram Parsons returned to the studio to record his second album, Grievous Angel (also featuring Emmylou Harris and James Burton). Parsons contributed three new songs to the album, “Return of the Grievous Angel,” “In My Hour of Darkness,” and “Ooh Las Vegas” (co-written with Ric Grech). The covers he chose served to reflect his now maturing vision for how country, rock and soul could be combined to create a new style of American music. Highlights include “Hearts On Fire,” “I Can’t Dance,” “Brass Buttons,” and his classic duet with Emmylou Harris “Love Hurts.”
The album was completed towards the end of summer, and Parsons celebrated by taking a vacation near the Joshua Tree National Monument in California, where he spent most of his time consuming drugs and alcohol. On September 19, 1973, he overdosed on morphine and tequila in a hotel room at the Joshua Tree Inn, and was pronounced dead at the age of 26. His body was to be flown back to New Orleans for burial. However, Phil Kaufman stole the body at the LAX airport and carried it back out to the Joshua Tree desert, where he attempted to cremate the body by pouring 5 gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and igniting it with a match. (Phil Kaufman later revealed that the cremation had fulfilled a pact he and Parsons had made.) Kaufman was charged with misdemeanor theft of a coffin and fined $708.
Grievous Angel was released posthumously in January 1974 and met with a similar reception to the previous album, peaking at number 195 on the Billboard chart. [In 1976, three additional tracks from Parsons’ last sessions with Emmylou Harris were included on a posthumous collection, entitled ‘Sleepless Nights.’]
Emmylou Harris was devastated by Gram Parsons’ death, and found herself at an emotional and musical crossroads. She eventually carried on with her own version of Parsons’ musical vision, and has continued to champion his work throughout her career, being instrumental in bringing attention to his achievements.
Harris has covered a number of Parsons’ songs over the years including “Hickory Wind”, “Wheels”, “Sin City”, “Luxury Liner”, and “Hot Burrito #2”. Her earliest signature song, and arguably her most personal one, “Boulder to Birmingham,” (from her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky), was written shortly after Gram’s death and showed the depth of her shock and pain at losing Parsons. Her 1985 album ‘The Ballad of Sally Rose’ is an original concept album that includes many allusions to Parsons in its narrative. In addition, her song “The Road” (from her 2011 album Hard Bargain) is a tribute to Gram Parsons.
Since his death, Parsons legacy continues to grow, as both country and rock musicians build on the foundation of music he left behind. His posthumous honors include the Americana Music Association’s “President’s Award” for 2003; and a ranking at #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In the Rolling Stone essay, Keith Richards notes that Parsons’ recorded music output was “pretty minimal.” But nevertheless, Parsons “effect on country music is enormous. This is why we’re talking about him now.”
Other country-influenced bands that followed in Parson’s footsteps include Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1967), The Band (1968), Allman Brothers (1969), Linda Ronstadt (1969), Poco (1969), ZZ Top (1970), Willie Nelson (1971), Loggins & Messina (1971), New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971), Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (1971), The Eagles (1972), Pure Prairie League (1972), Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973), Marshall Tucker (1973), Ozark Mountain Daredevils (1973), Amazing Rhythm Aces (1975), Firefall (1976), Lucinda Williams (1979), Blasters (1980), Rank & File (1982), Los Lobos (1984), Steve Earle (1986), Jayhawks (1986), BoDeans (1986), Desert Rose Band (1987), Kentucky Headhunters (1989), Uncle Tupelo (1990), Spanic Boys (1990), The Mavericks (1991), Golden Smog (1992), Wilco (1995), Son Volt (1995), Whiskeytown (1996), BR5-49 (1996), Red Meat (1997), Railroad Earth (2001), and The National (2001).
In 1974, The Eagles included the song “My Man”, a tribute to Gram Parsons written by Bernie Leadon, on their 1974 album On The Border. [Leadon was a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers during the late 1960s and early 1970s.]
In 1993, Rhino released “Conmemorativo – A Tribute to Gram Parsons,” which includes recordings by Bob Mould, Victoria Williams, Uncle Tupelo, and The Mekons.
In 1997, Rhino released Live 1973, featuring Gram Parsons and The Fallen Angels recorded before an enthusiastic studio audience at the Ultrasonic Recording Studios in Long Island, New York, and broadcast live on WLIR-FM.
Live 1973 finds Parsons and his band playing with fire and looseness, especially Neil Flanz on pedal steel, Jock Bartley on guitar, and the wonderful Emmylou Harris harmonizing so passionately with Gram’s lead vocals. Most of the material on Live 1973 comes from Parsons’ two solo albums, and his groundbreaking work with the Byrds and Flying Burritos Brothers. Still, there are a few noteworthy additions to the canon, namely an urgent reading of Merle Haggard’s “California Cottonfields;” a roughshod ’50s-rock medley; and the relatively obscure sacred tune “Country Baptizing,” which was written by North Carolina fiddler Jim Shumate (a onetime member of both Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and then Flatt & Scrugg’s Foggy Mountain Boys).
In 1999, Emmylou Harris produced the Gram Parsons tribute album “Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute To Gram Parsons. It features performances by Emmylou Harris, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Chris Hillman, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Wilco.
Between 1996 and 2006, a music festival called Gram Fest, or the Cosmic American Music Festival, was held annually in honor of Parsons in Joshua Tree, California. The show featured tunes written by Gram Parsons and Gene Clark as well as influential songs and musical styles from other artists that were part of that era. Performers were also encouraged to showcase their own material. The underlying theme of the event is to inspire the performers to take these musical styles to the next level of the creative process. Past concerts have featured such notable artists as Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Chris Ethridge, Spooner Oldham, Counting Crows, Barry & Holly Tashian, George Tomsco, Lucinda Williams, Phil Kaufman (“The Road Mangler”), and Ben Fong-Torres.
In 2000, Cameron Crowe included a brief tribute to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris practicing together in their hotel room at the Hollywood Hyatt House (“riot house”) in his film Almost Famous.
In 2006, Gandulf Hennig directed a documentary film titled Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel.
In 2007, Amoeba Records released Archives No. 1: Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969.
In February 2008, Gram’s protégée, Emmylou Harris, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. [Despite his influence, however, Parsons has yet to be inducted.] The working relationship between Harris and Parsons is of great importance in country and country-rock music history. Parsons offered Harris a study in true country music, introducing her to artists like The Louvin Brothers, and provided her with a musical identity; while Harris’s harmony and duet vocals were lauded by those who heard them, and helped inspire Parsons’ performances.
In November 2009, the musical theatre production Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons premiered, starring Anders Drerup as Gram Parsons and Kelly Prescott as Emmylou Harris. Directed by Micheal Bate and co-written by Bate and David McDonald, the production was inspired by a March 1973 interview that Bate conducted with Parsons, which became Parsons’ last recorded conversation.
In 2011, Hip-O Select released Authorized Bootleg: Fillmore East NY Late Show, a live concert from November 1970 featuring Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and Michael Clarke.
Flying Burrito Brothers – Christine’s Tune
Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1
Flying Burrito Brothers – Altamont (Dec 6, 1969)
Flying Burrito Brothers – Older Guys
Chris Hillman on Gram Parsons
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Six Days on the Road (1971)
Emmylou Harris on Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons – How Did You Meet Emmylou Harris
Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris – Big Mouth Blues (Liberty Hall, 1973)
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris – Drug Store Truck Driving Man (Boston, 1973)
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris – A Song For You (New York, 1973)
Keith Richards on Gram Parsons
Gram Parsons & Keith Richard – Wild Horses
Keith Richard – Wild Horses